Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

*. In Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (a book I can’t recommend enough) he talks about our movement away from a text-based civilization to the new electronic dispensation. This was in 1985, so before the Internet as we know it, but Postman still nailed what would become the essential point: that it was not the dystopic vision of Orwell’s 1984 that we would see realized but that of Huxley’s Brave New World. The state wouldn’t burn books or engage in heavy-handed censorship because we wouldn’t care about books any more. We’d watch the “feelies” on TV and give ourselves over entirely to mindless entertainment. People would “adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
*. This is a point Ray Bradbury had already made in Fahrenheit 451. Yes, there’s a fascistic state police squad and all the other props of the Orwellian dystopia, but as he makes clear at the end of the book, the public “stopped reading of its own accord.” The state didn’t really need any enforcers.
*. This is more like our world. We’ve been told for decades now that people don’t read any more and that print is dead. And while this is an overstatement, it does reflect a general truth. Julie Christie makes the point, albeit a bit awkwardly, during her DVD commentary: “Bradbury must have thought that for books to be a threat what was going to happen in the future is that most people in this story, most people retain free will. In other words, the threat is that if the books are there then the people would choose to read them, to exercise their minds by reading. But in fact, most people have chosen not to read books.”
*. Also on the commentary track editor Thom Noble expresses bafflement at people wanting to remake it since it’s a “period piece” that wouldn’t really make sense today. So much for SF as prophecy.
*. This is not, however, a point that François Truffaut’s film bothers with. Instead we have the firemen as stereotypical jackbooted Nazi thugs and the book people as a bunch of hippie freedom lovers. We can’t even call them a resistance since they’ve really just opted out of society entirely. There is a dark ambiguity to this I’ll come back to, but overall the political message is simpler than it is in the book.

*. Fahrenheit 451 is a movie that both should have been a lot better and at the same time works a lot better than you might expect.
*. When I say it should have been better I’m referring mainly to the talent collected. A classic Ray Bradbury story. Truffaut directing. Nicolas Roeg behind the camera. Oskar Werner when he was a star (that didn’t last long). Julie Christie pulling double duty.
*. On the other hand, there were good reasons for doubting it from the start. Foremost among these being the fact that Truffaut didn’t know English. This is something that critics took the film to task for right from the beginning, and they haven’t stopped since.
*. There’s no denying that the language barrier led to difficulties. In the “making of” featurette it’s said that the cast and crew basically all worked in French, and apparently even the script was originally written in French and then re-written (perhaps meaning more than translated) into English. Given that all the dialogue was dubbed in post, one wonders why they didn’t just shoot it in French as well.
*. But does this make a difference? Sergio Leone knew little English, but still made great movies by compensating with laconic heroes and lots of close-ups. Truffaut had a way of working with the language barrier too: by insisting that the dialogue be uninflected and unemotional. He thought that people who didn’t read would be inarticulate. So if the speech sounds stiff, that’s not just because Truffaut didn’t know English but because he wanted it to sound that way.

*. Beyond the language barrier there were other reasons you might have thought it would go wrong. This was Truffaut’s first colour film, which is a big change. It was also SF, and Truffaut was not a fan of that genre. And finally he was entering into a Hitchcock phase, but was this a good fit as a Hitchcock film?
*. A good fit or not, Truffaut was going to try and make it work. There are various nods to Hitch throughout, from the small and subtle (the reaction shot of Montag’s wife finding a book) to the blatant (Montag’s dream). I suspect there might also be a connection between Christie playing two roles and Kim Novak’s doubling in Vertigo. And of course you’ve got Bernard Herrmann’s score backing it all up.
*. But the question remains as to how appropriate this was. I think it might have worked, as the setting of a police/surveillance state is a good fit for building suspense. But there’s something about the atmosphere that just doesn’t build the appropriate level of threat and dread.
*. At the most basic level: what is Montag threatened with if he gets caught? Not getting his promotion? Being fired? Or perhaps sent to some re-education camp where he’ll be tortured and killed? How repressive a society is this? The commune of the book people doesn’t look so bad.
*. So much of the film seems over the top, from Herrmann’s score to the childlike reds of the fire engine and fire station. This was deliberate, but off-putting.
*. Then there are the bizarre moments that don’t seem to have any explanation. The sinister fireman who appears crossdressed at the school. The antique phones. The fact that Montag can’t use the pole at the fire station. The way half the screen goes black at the park.

*. Or take another example. If you’re a fan of the book perhaps the biggest thing you’ll miss is the Mechanical Hound. I think the reason they had to leave it out is pretty clear. There was just no way they were going to make it look anything other than ridiculous. Hell, forty years later the mechanical hounds in Kingsman: The Golden Circle still looked ridiculous. On the other hand, did they have to replace it with the men in jetpacks? Did they look any less ridiculous, even in 1966. How can you take them seriously?
*. Montag’s escape is also pretty unbelievable. Basically he just walks out of town and crosses a little river in a rowboat. Which is fine if this is all a fantasy, but it doesn’t work as well if you want the audience to buy into the notion of there being anything really at stake.
*. Oh, those classic Penguin Classic covers. They’ve brought them back in recent years. They really were iconic.
*. I mentioned the ambiguity in the depiction of the commune at the end. This arises from the fact that reading is, for the most part, a personal experience. It’s something we do by ourselves, turning the words on the page into the voice in our head. As such, there’s something solipsistic in it. And so, as others have noted, are the book people at the end that different from the people masturbating on the monorail? Or the man in the red sweater making out with himself in the park?
*. Julie Christie says on the commentary that the ending is suggestive of some social communion beyond the sexual or physical, but one that allows for a deeper interpersonal bonding and understanding. I’m not so sure. Don’t those figures pacing back and forth, oblivious to one another, seem like so many of the people we see today plugged into their phones and iPods? SF can be prophetic! Believe!


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